I heard that a young man of illustrious Chassidic ancestry once asked the Rebbe in a private audience about a marriage proposal that had been suggested for him. But even after the Rebbe gave a positive response, the young man seemed unsure, and alluded to the fact that the girl was not from a similarly prominent family. The Rebbe responded, “Nu, and if she isn’t from Samarkand, so what?”

Indeed, for decades the Chabad community in Samarkand was known as a particularly chassidic community, keenly adherent of the highest religious standards and ideals. The Chassidim in Russia used to say, “Samarkand shpitz Chabad”—shpitz meaning, for lack of a better term, "peak," or "height." The Chabad community was infused with a rich inner world of chassidic vitality; its members performed every Lubavitcher custom with warmth and devotion.

One might ask: How many Lubavitchers actually lived in Samarkand? It’s hard to answer this question because the number fluctuated from one period of time to the next.

The original Jews of Samarkand were Sefardic Bucharian Jews, named as such after the city of Buchara that was once the regional capital. According to the locals, they are descended from Persian Jews who arrived in the region at the start of the second millennium CE. Indeed, for generations, they have a spoken a language similar to that of the Persian Jews. Even further back into the past, tradition has their origins with the Ten Tribes banished from the Land of Israel by the Assyrians. The fact that the Jews of ancient Persia and Medea, the purported ancestors of the Bucharians, are believed to have absorbed some of the Jews from the Assyrian exile lends support to this tradition.

The earliest Chabad presence in that region was in the year 1890, when Reb Shlomo Leib Eliezrov, a Chassid of the Rebbe Rashab and the rabbi of Chevron, Israel, arrived in Bucharia. The purpose of his trip was to collect money for the Jewish community in Chevron. While there, he worked on repairing the mikvas as well as organizing the provision of kosher meat in Samarkand, Tashkent, and the surrounding cities and towns. The local Jews requested that he accept a temporary rabbinical position in Samarkand, which he did, and for the next thirty years he would return periodically to strengthen Jewish lifein the area. When the Communist government came to power, he was forced to flee and return to the Land of Israel.

The brilliant Halachist and Chassid Reb Avraham Chaim Noeh contributed to the revival of Bucharian Jewry as well. In the year 1911, while still a young man of twenty-one, he left the Land of Israel with the mission of bolstering Jewish life in Bucharia. His efforts were primarily focused on Samarkand, where he served as its rabbi. During his stay in Samarkand, he wrote a treatise in Bucharian entitled Chanoch LaNaar detailing the laws of tefillin for Bar Mitzvah age boys. He would wear the customary Bucharian garb, and was known by the local Jews as “Avraham Chaim Mendelov Noeh,” the “Mendelov” being a Bucharian reference to his father R. Mendel Noeh.

In the year 1925, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe sent a young Chassid by the name of Reb Simcha Gorodetzky to Samarkand. R. Simcha worked vigorously, teaching Torah classes for the adults and organizing schools for hundreds of Bucharian children. In time, he succeeded in sending a group of gifted young men to the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva in Poltava, who in turn later served as beacons of light in their respective communities.

R. Simcha’s activities entailed genuine self-sacrifice. He was arrested by the secret police on several occasions, as related at length in the books Lubavitch VaChayaleha and Yahadus HaDemama, as well as in a separate chapter in this book. In 1944, he was arrested and sentenced to death, Heaven forefend.

Just then, by divine providence, Stalin released a statement declaring all death sentences commuted to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia. R. Simcha was saved. After a few years, R. Simcha was joined in Siberia by R. Chizkiyahu Kayikov, one of the students he had sent off to Tomchei Temimim years earlier. R. Chizkiyahu has since been serving as the rabbi of the Bucharian Jews in Samarkand, until his arrest in 1950. They were both released from Siberia after Stalin’s sudden death in 1953.

Despite R. Simcha’s extensive work for 19 years in this area of the Soviet Union, Samarkand was yet to become known as a Lubavitcher city, and it certainly had not yet earned its prestigious “shpitz Chabad” reputation.